UH Researcher Chitrala Explores Root Causes of Breast Cancer Health Disparities at Cell Level

It’s a jarring reality in the U.S. that health disparities significantly impact disease differences between African Americans and other ethnicities, and racial health gap has persisted, according to JAMA. In the case of breast cancer, there is a stark racial health divide. In fact, African American women are 41 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts, despite the lower incidence of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

May 18, 2023 /

Yet, what if researchers could further explore these disease-specific differences directly at the cell level, in the tumor microenvironment? Through a HEALTH-RCMI Pilot Program Award, UH researcher Dr. Kumaraswamy Naidu Chitrala will study the root causes of health disparities in triple-negative breast cancer, at the molecular level among African American and white patients. Chitrala is an Assistant professor with the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering who is now collaborating with the HEALTH-RCMI. The research initiative was funded $50,000 through HEALTH-RCMI Pilot Program Award [PI: Dr. Ezemenari Obasi]


“African Americans are more exposed to cancer mortality compared to white participants,” Chitrala said. “The question is what makes it different between those two populations. Our question is: if we explore this at a single cell level, we can pick up more biomarkers and more drivers about these disparities in the population. That’s been the main key of this project.”


During this cancer study, researchers hope to recruit 20 participants from each group—from the African American population and 20 from the white population. Researchers will compile data about demographic information including age, race, gender, and ethnicity.

“The overall goal is to assess how disparities exist at the genetic level and how those genes will express over their life span,” Chitrala said.


From a therapeutic perspective, Chitrala's research initiative will also focus on how best to treat breast cancer in both the African American and white populations.


“After extracting cells from both populations, we will treat them with inhibitors, like chemotherapy inhibitors and assess how single cells differ when you do that,” Chitrala said. “Those are the specific aims of specific populations we’re targeting.”


The immune system plays a pivotal role in cancer prevention, Chitrala emphasized.


“Our immune system markers play an important role in tumor microenvironment,” Chitrala said. “It’s important to see how immune markers and inhibitors change between both populations.”


Chitrala credits Dr. Fatima Merchant who serves as HEALTH-RCMI's Director of Research Infrastructure Core for helping nurture his career in cancer research.


“Dr. Merchant is a wonderful mentor," Chitrala said. “I’m very proud to say she’s the best faculty mentor I’ve ever had in my life. This is the second project we’ve worked on as a team. It’s very exciting. She’s one of the top researchers in breast cancer.”


For Chitrala, this research endeavor uniquely aligns with his mission of ending cancer as we know it, through prevention. It’s also a distinctly personal mission since Chitrala’s grandmother struggled with cancer.


“My mission is to see a cancer-free world, specifically breast-cancer-free world—and to see personalized medicine with a therapeutic strategy where we can target a single gene and single drug,” Chitrala said. That’s our main objective. The long-term goal is to focus on personalizing medicine. Cancer now touches everyone.”


–Alison Medley


If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Alison Medley at 713.320.0933 or email aemedle2@central.uh.edu